Nascar begins to expand audience with iRacing Pro Invitational Series

(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Nascar’s newly-developed esports series, the eNascar iRacing Pro Invitational Series, was initially designed as a means to fill the competition void during the ongoing sports industry hiatus due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and give corporate sponsors another way to activate within the motorsports property.

But after three weeks of virtual racing, the growing series has also proven a powerful means to expand the overall Nascar audience, bringing the esports competition to hundreds of thousands of fans who had not watched any real-world races this year.

The initial Pro Invitational Series race, a virtual event at Homestead-Miami Speedway staged on March 22 and involving actual Nascar drivers, drew 903,000 US viewers on cable network FS1, according to Nielsen Media Research. Roughly 255,000 of those people hadn’t watched a real-world Nascar race this year.

Subsequent races – March 29 from Texas Motor Speedway, and April 5 from Bristol Motorspeedway – have shown both overall audience growth, and similar penetration into new audiences. The Texas race drew an average audience of 1.3 million viewers, representing the highest-rated esports television program of all time in the US, and the Bristol race drew an average of 1.2 million viewers.

All told, the three virtual races staged thus far have combined to attract nearly 900,000 new viewers who had not previously watched a Nascar race in 2020. And internationally, the iRacing Pro Invitational Series has reached 160 countries as IMG has aided Nascar with its global media distribution.

“We’ve been saying for a long time that esports is one of those tools in our tool box that allows us to get younger and more diverse,” says Scott Warfield, Nascar managing director of gaming. “When you start to see numbers like that, it helps your argument. And you also have to put in the context of the Daytona 500 [run in February]. That’s the most casual audience we get all year. And 255,000 people who watched the first week of the Pro Invitational Series didn’t watch the [Daytona] 500….This is a moment in time that we didn’t ask for and we don’t want, but it has positioned us as first movers.”

Indeed, a litany of other sports properties have since also moved to create their own esports events, involving athletes from their respective sports, professional gamers, or celebrities. Among them are Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, LaLiga, Formula 1Monumental Sports & Entertainment, IndyCar, and Major League Rugby, among others.

But Nascar is enjoying a trio of crucial advantages relative to many of those properties. First, Nascar has sanctioned the eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series for nearly a decade, giving it a very long run of experience in the still-emerging esports space. The deep realism of the graphics and racing gameplay, powered by motorsports simulation platform and longtime Nascar partner iRacing, makes one of the virtual races almost look like the real thing. And many Nascar drivers were already using iRacing technology for training and fan engagement purposes.

“We take a lot of pride in this,” Warfield says. “You’re always looking across the aisle at the stick-and-ball guys and you always want to be first movers. But this is a real testament to iRacing in particular. 

“The difference for us is that it’s so authentic and natural to Nascar. Our top athletes are already using this platform. This isn’t big, bad Nascar asking drivers to do something [they wouldn’t do]. It’s organic to what they already do, and that comes through. As great as NBA2K, Madden, FIFA or any of those stick-and-ball games are, a big reason I think we’ve resonated is the credibility iRacing has with our athletes,” he says.

Denny Hamlin, winner of the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series Dixie Vodka 150 at virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway, does a burnout.
Credit: NASCAR

Rapid Shift

It was certainly no secret that prior to the arrival of the pandemic, Nascar had plenty of issues in core revenue drivers such as race attendance and corporate sponsorship. And the Pro Invitational Series isn’t going to fully solve any of those larger issues, or replace all of the lost revenue from not being able to stage real-world races.

But the development of the esports series did mark a rapid pivot for Nascar amid the unprecedented challenge the pandemic brought, and represents a key means to keep both fans and sponsors engaged.

Dixie Vodka, Nascar’s official vodka, was on the front lines of that shift. The race it holds the title sponsorship rights for, the Dixie Vodka 400, was the second one on the Nascar 2020 schedule postponed due to Covid-19, with the decision made less than a week before the event was slated to occur. 

But within a matter of a few days, Nascar was able to organize the Pro Invitational Series with iRacing, and the real-world event at Homestead-Miami Speedway was turned into a virtual one, the Dixie Vodka 150, also held on March 22 and on a re-created version of the track.

“It was all very real-time,” says Matti Anttila, founder and chief executive of Dixie Vodka parent Grain & Barrel Spirits. “There were a lot of moving pieces in those few days leading up to the race, with a lot of different options on the table, including racing with no fans, canceling outright, or postponing. Once it became clear the [real-world] race wasn’t happening, it was a very quick transition to the iRacing.

“Ultimately, it’s been a success. People are really starved for sports content, and this is one of the only games happening right now. The Nascar fanbase is also very loyal, and has been really supportive of this,” Anttila says.

Anttila, however, is quick to note that the exposure for the brand is still markedly different in an esports event. The Dixie Vodka 400, had it been held, would have been shown on Fox broadcast in the US, and likely reached at least several million people. 

The Pro Invitational Series, conversely, was shown on FS1 on cable, and averaged 903,000 viewers. A historically strong number for esports, to be certain, and one that again exposed the sport to many new fans. But not close to a direct, full replacement for what would have happened.

“It’s two different things, but this is going to be a great thing for the fan,” Anttila says. “Even when live racing returns, the iRacing isn’t going away. And providing they can keep up the driver involvement like they have now, there is going to be value there for a brand like ours. This definitely opens up a lot of possibilities.”

Nascar, too, acknowledges that the Pro Invitational Series hasn’t replaced all the lost audience or revenue that has been claimed by the public health crisis, though specific financial figures haven’t been disclosed. And the organization is one of many across the sports industry to impose pay cuts.

But given the hundreds of thousands of new fans exposed to the world of Nascar, and the industry buzz generated by the Pro Invitational Series, the organization is grateful for what’s been created.

“This isn’t replacing [all the lost revenue], but it’s providing a pretty good little jolt to the system when everybody was looking for something,” Warfield says.

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